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May 24, 2020 – Last week, President Donald Trump took his attacks on voting by mail to new heights as he threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan and Nevada if they continued to implement vote-by-mail their states.
“The threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and, I think, something that is unacceptable,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told “CBS This Morning.” Other observers saw shades of Trump’s attempt to withhold military equipment from Ukraine to extort that country into opening a criminal investigation into his leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. This action led to Trump’s impeachment.
With his recent broadside, Trump is building on his continuing false charges that voting-by-mail would lead to widespread fraud — despite the absence of any evidence to support his baseless claims. In fact, both red states and blue states have instituted the practice without problem.
Trump’s actions suggest he is interested in suppressing the November vote. Why? Perhaps because he thinks that the more eligible Americans he can prevent from voting, the better his chances of being re-elected. If you make it easier for more people to vote with absentee and mail-in ballots, Trump said on “Fox & Friends, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
This could also be the reason that some Republicans have been pressing to restrict voting-by-mail. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican state legislature blocked the Democratic governor’s efforts to mail ballots to all voters and the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overruled his effort to move the April primary to June. This backfired, however, when a Democrat won an upset election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
This isn’t a purely political issue, it’s a question of safety. Voting-by-mail during this pandemic means that citizens will not have to choose between their votes and their lives.
But Trump looks to be up to more than suppressing the vote. He could be attempting to set the stage to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses — by claiming widespread voter fraud in the mailed ballots. Let’s keep in mind that even when Trump won in 2016, he challenged the election results, claiming without a shred of evidence that three million to five million votes were illegally counted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This is the reason, he insisted, that she won the popular vote.
Much needs to be done to provide for safe and secure voting. State and local election officials need substantial amounts of federal funds to administer the vastly increased number of mailed-in ballots that will be cast in the November elections in the face of the coronavirus. Money is also required to make the adjustments necessary for safe in-person voting.
The House recently approved these essential funds with the HEROES Act, stimulus relief legislation, which includes $3.6 billion for the November elections. This money is needed to pay for crucial additional expenditures — ballot printing, postage, drop boxes for absentee ballots and appropriate security, secure electronic absentee ballot request technology, ballot tracking, improvements to absentee ballot processing, additional facilities for both ballot processing and storage, additional staffing to support absentee ballot processing, polling facilities that meet public health standards and increased poll worker support.
The act also provides $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has an essential role to play in effective voting by mail and which has major financial woes. Trump regularly attacks the Postal Service, has installed a political crony as postmaster general and prevented the service, to date, from receiving the federal funding it needs to properly function.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. R-Ky., has been slow walking this next round of stimulus legislation. Throughout this Congress, he has also blocked adequate funding for the states to conduct the November elections. And McConnell has prevented Senate consideration of all legislative efforts in this Congress to protect against foreign interference in our elections.
Negotiations on the next round of stimulus relief are now expected to begin in June, with a deal expected sometime in July. But the longer it takes to get money to the states, the more difficult it will be for them to conduct a safe, secure, and fair election in November.
But even when the election is over, we will still have a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and an endangered democracy.
The current campaign finance system is dominated by influence-seeking billionaires and millionaires, Super PACs, dark money nonprofit groups, bundlers, lobbyists and powerful special interests. The current voting system is rife with barriers that discriminate against minorities, suppress voting and leave tens of millions of eligible voters unregistered.
Partisan gerrymandering often results in officeholders choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representative, denying the American people fair representation. The ethics abuses and corrupt practices of Trump and his administration are unmatched in U.S. history. Trump’s refusal to give up ownership of his businesses, for example, have created enumerable domestic and foreign conflicts of interest. Ethics problems exist in all three branches of government.
Assuming the current polls hold up in November, we will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact arguably the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress. It is designed to repair our political system, reform our campaign finance laws and revitalize our democracy.
This legislative package, known as H.R. 1, passed the House in March 2019. McConnell, however, has blocked its consideration in the Senate.
Unrigging the system in Washington is a prerequisite to achieving the substantive changes that could be pursued in the next Congress and future years. Democratic congressional leaders — and their members who unanimously supported H.R.1 — have correctly recognized that Washington’s rigged system must be ended to pave the way for solving the nation’s problems.
Biden has said, should he win, a first priority for his administration will be to push through the kinds of reforms found in the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., prioritized the critical need for democracy reform by making it the first order of business in this Congress. She has committed to doing the same in the next Congress. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has committed to making the bill one of his first three priorities if Democrats control the Senate in January 2021.
H.R 1 has been carefully crafted to obtain the support it needs to pass Congress and cannot become a Christmas tree on which to hang other substantive or systemic reforms without dangerously jeopardizing its enactment.
In contrast to earlier decades of bipartisan support for democracy reforms, congressional Republicans in the last 10 years have almost universally opposed these reforms. At the state and local level, however, bipartisan democracy reforms have been enacted. Most important, the American people object to Washington’s rigged system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
McConnell has now spent decades using either obstructionist filibusters by the minority or his scheduling powers in the majority to block Senate consideration of democracy reforms. But a new Senate Democratic majority would no longer allow this.
The Senate filibuster rules may not be eliminated. But after McConnell has used an exception to the filibuster rules to pack the federal judiciary with conservative and right-wing judges, there is bound to be room for a second exception to allow a majority to determine the rules of our democracy.
It looks like we are on the cusp of enacting an historic package of democracy reforms to repair our political system and restore our democracy. The constitutional system of representative government given to us by the Founders is on the line.
Originally published here in NBC Think on May 24, 2020.
Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen U.S. democracy and empower citizens in the political process. www.democracy21.org